Thursday, 10 September 2020

The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019)

Tobruk director Václav Marhoul's new film The Painted Bird enjoyed quite a run on last year's festival circuit, where it impressed and disturbed audiences in cities including London, Venice and Toronto.  Even before anyone had seen the finished film - an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Being There author Jerzy Kosiński - word had it that this was one of the most gruelling cinematic experiences of recent years.  Its festival screenings - which saw countless walkouts from queasy viewers - did much to cement the film's notoriety, but the film's general release was pushed back by nearly six months on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, this Friday finally sees The Painted Bird released in cinemas (and on VOD) courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, who will be handling distribution in the UK and Ireland; the film is due open in the Netherlands next month.

As the Second World War heads towards its conclusion, a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) is sent to stay with his aunt so that he might avoid the attentions of the Nazis.  Whether this plan would have worked or not, we'll never know, as the aunt suddenly dies in the film's early stages, leaving the boy to fend for himself.  And so the unnamed child's odyssey begins, as he trudges his way across the Eastern Front, a pitiless theatre of conflict that could quite easily pass for the unenlightened medieval milieu of Czech classic Marketa Lazarová.  This particular hell is mainly populated by those capable of seemingly boundless cruelty, and any brief flickers of respite stand out like a sore thumb; the few souls who look to help the child include a kindly if misguided priest (Harvey Keitel), a sympathetic German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), and a taciturn Soviet sniper (Barry Pepper).  But if you start to believe that comfort will always come from those played by the more recognisable actors among the cast, think again: Udo Kier's miller and Julian Sands' farmer stand as two of the film's most sadistic characters, with the latter almost certainly the worst of the boy's tormentors.

With its story of a boy experiencing the full-on horrors of WW2 as he stumbles through the wreckage of eastern Europe, The Painted Bird explicitly recalls Elem Klimov's masterpiece Come and See.  Marhoul wears his key influence on his sleeve, even going as far as to cast Come and See's star Aleksei Kravchenko as a Soviet soldier who befriends our young protagonist.  While this is admittedly a neat touch - here, Kravchenko's character provides exactly the sort of ally his Flyora needed in Klimov's film - you do wonder if such a bold move could backfire on Marhoul; The Painted Bird is no Come and See - then again, what is?  Even if The Painted Bird lacks the gut-punch quality of Klimov's 1985 shocker (which was also based on a book), it is nonetheless a haunting, troubling work, one in which the atrocities depicted on screen stand at complete odds with the quite stunning monochrome cinematography.  How can such terrible things be photographed so beautifully?  It's a trait The Painted Bird shares with the notorious Singapore Sling.

While the excellent lensing does help in providing a bit of a distance - the film certainly feels very grand and cinematic, and you shudder to think what the effect might have been had vérité-style camerawork been employed - there is another welcome layer of artificiality present here: The Painted Bird is the first movie to be filmed in the constructed Interslavic language (think of it as a sort of Slavic Esperanto), with Marhoul's reasoning for this being that he didn't want the barbarity on display to be associated with one particular nation.  While the film is unrelentingly grim, its content isn't quite as difficult to stomach as the hype and walkouts might suggest; frequently, Marhoul cuts away from violent acts or opts to shoot from a merciful angle.  While you're never in any doubt as to what's happened in any given scene, there is a certain restraint at work here; it's a pity that some have looked to reduce the film to little more than a clutch of shocking moments, as it is an even, measured and controlled piece of cinema.  Given its savage nature and lengthy running time (it's a few minutes short of three hours), The Painted Bird is an endurance test, but it's also an extremely worthwhile film, one which deserves a life well beyond the sensational headlines.

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

London Film Festival 2020: Programme Launch

The 64th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) in partnership with American Express today announced the full programme of its reimagined and innovative new 2020 offering that will be delivered both virtually and via physical screenings. Over the twelve days from 7 – 18th October, the Festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 Virtual Premieres and a selection of highly-anticipated new feature film previews at BFI Southbank as well as in cinemas across the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the Festival in different ways. 

With work from more than 40 countries, the programme includes fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, short film, restored classics from the world’s archives as well as previews of several episodic/series-based works made for the small screen. 

Every screening will be presented with an intro or Q&A from filmmakers and programmers. The Festival also includes many ways audiences can engage with the Festival for free: LFF Opening screenings of Mangrove in cinemas across the UK; selected feature films on BFI Player; an international programme of short films featuring established and breakthrough film talents; Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, as well as all online salons and Q&As across the Festival which will give audiences an opportunity to delve more deeply into themes and talking points emerging from the programme. The recently announced LFF Expanded strand of XR and Immersive Art will also be free to access both virtually and at BFI Southbank for the duration of the Festival.

All films are geo-blocked to the UK while all the Festival talks and LFF Expanded are available to experience for free from anywhere in the world. 

As is befitting this audience-facing and innovative edition, this year the Festival Awards are in the hands of the audience, who will take the place of the Festival’s Official Jury. Viewers engaging with the Festival online will be invited to vote on Virtual LFF Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced in a live online ceremony on the final weekend of the Festival. We will also announce The IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with the BFI winner at the Awards Ceremony. The Bursary benefits an outstanding first or second time British writer, director, or writer/director. The recipient of the award will receive £50,000, which is the most significant of its kind in the UK film industry and awarded annually.

Source: BFI


Monday, 24 August 2020

Wildcat! The Films of Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe Gortner in The Gun and the Pulpit (image: public domain)
On the very few occasions that a book has received coverage on this site, it has invariably been the case that I've had some sort of connection with the title in question.  So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that Wildcat! author John Harrison and I go way back to the 1990s, an era when print media was—shock, horror!—the norm.  Before I moved to Australia, I got in touch with Melbourne-based John in late 1997 with a view to writing for his publication Reel Wild Cinema!  Shortly after arriving in Queensland, I called John and discussed a few ideas for articles for upcoming issues; soon after that chat, he unselfishly furnished me with a list of names and numbers of other local publications he thought I might be able to contribute to.  From then on, John and I would speak at least a couple of times a month via 'phone, and we'd have lengthy conversations about films we'd seen and articles we might write, among various other topics.  It's always nice when you hit it off with someone you've encountered for what might be termed work reasons, and I always thoroughly enjoyed catching up with John; thankfully, we were able to meet up a couple of times before my stay in Australia came to an end, and it was great to have a few drinks with him.  In my 30 years as a writer, I've encountered many fine people (and also some utter heels), and John is definitely one of the good guys.  We kept in contact for a good while after I left Australia, but after a number of years and for no particular reason, we gradually lost touch.

Anyway, to the book: Wildcat!, which thankfully jump-started me into reestablishing contact with John, is a study of evangelist-cum-actor Marjoe Gortner.  For as long as I've known John, he's been fascinated by Marjoe, and I recall an article in Reel Wild Cinema! about Gortner, who was someone I was hitherto only vaguely aware of on the basis of (i) his brief marriage to Candy Clark and (ii) the films Earthquake, The Food of the Gods and Viva Knievel!  Yet I knew nothing of Gortner's background as a child preacher, and I was amazed to learn that he was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Marjoe, which was released in 1972.  Wildcat!, as its subtitle suggests, focuses on Gortner's films, although a helpful amount of information about Marjoe's childhood is included, too; to ignore it would be to ignore the elephant in the room, and the book cleverly assesses the symbiotic relationship between Gortner's private and professional lives.  The writing is lively, entertaining and informed, and John's painstaking research on the project is obvious.  The inclusion of a number of interviews makes for a most welcome addition, and the book sees John catching up with the likes of Starcrash director Luigi Cozzi, Cedric Sundstrom (who helmed the Cannon movie American Ninja 3), and Gortner's Hellhole co-star Marneen Fields; I'm guessing the last of these interviews was the most straightforward one to arrange, given that Marneen is also John's wife!  Anyway, all the interviewees are very good value, and they add a satisfying extra dimension to what is always an engrossing read.  John's efforts to contact the book's subject are also documented, and it's pretty clear that Gortner is someone who really doesn't want to be found.

In case you're looking for a Dutch connection here, there is one in the form of the curious case of actress Jacqueline van Stratten, whose sole film credit was on 1980's Fire, Ice and Dynamite, in which Marjoe Gortner played a TV anchorman.  This movie, which starred then-current Bond Roger Moore, arrived at the tail end of a glut of Cannonball Run-style cross-country race films that had proved popular in the 1970s, although this German production provided its own spin on the formula by making skiing the main mode of transport.  Even in the context of Marjoe's filmography, Fire, Ice and Dynamite is one bizarre film, in which an incongruous selection of celebrities (Niki Lauda, Isaac Hayes, Buzz Aldrin) appear as themselves.  A limited edition Volkswagen Golf was launched on the back of the movie, which frequently seemed to be more concerned with product placement than anything else; following this oddity, Gortner would make just one more film—Walter Hill's Wild Bill, in which he played a preacher—before going into self-imposed exile.  Naturally, Fire, Ice and Dynamite, like every other film in Marjoe Gortner's career, comes under the microscope in the excellent Wildcat!, which can be bought from numerous places including Amazon.  You can also check out John's blog here.

Darren Arnold

Monday, 17 August 2020

London Film Festival 2020: New Format Announced

In the most accessible version of the festival to UK audiences yet, film lovers will be given an opportunity to connect for a unique and innovative festival experience, enjoying both live and digital screenings across the 12 days of the Festival [from 7–18/10/20]. Adapting to the extraordinary challenges of the year, the Festival will deliver up to 50 Virtual Festival Premieres in a programme that offers audiences the opportunity to see the best new cinema from around the world and with that same texture LFF’s audiences love, including fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, and restored classics from the world’s archives. Every film will be presented with an intro or Q&A, and the programme will also include a range of free-to-access additional works and events to include: an international short film programme, Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, salons and roundtables and a brand new Virtual Exhibition of XR [Extended Reality] and Immersive Art. In another new innovation, twelve highly anticipated new films from the programme will screen in previews across the UK, in partnership with UK-wide cinemas networks that deliver great independent and cultural films for audiences all year long, including London’s BFI Southbank.

BFI London Film Festival Director, Tricia Tuttle said: “Like many other live events around the world, we’ve had to make changes to our plans in response to a global pandemic, factoring in safety concerns and restrictions – some known, some still unclear. But as we’ve undergone this planning we’ve also witnessed historical international protests, an urgent reminder of just how much we need to do to combat racism and inequality. This year has also given us an opportunity to think creatively about how we make the Festival more accessible. It was vital to us that we get back to cinemas, and are looking forward to working with independent and cultural venues across the UK who are such an essential part of our film ecosystem. The Virtual LFF programmes and these cinema screenings take the Festival out across the UK, giving people opportunities to engage in different ways. It’s a pleasure each year to speak with audiences who share the ways filmmakers have made them laugh, think, weep, or shifted their way of seeing. Through a number of partnerships and platforms, we can’t wait to share many of this year’s extraordinary new films - from around the world, from artists of different backgrounds and with many bold distinctive filmmaking voices.”

At the heart of the 2020 edition, Virtual LFF features 50 screenings online, with each film scheduled to premiere at a particular time and include additional elements such as exclusive Q&A’s with filmmaking talent and programmers, online salons and discussions around films. Many of the films will include subtitles and Audio Description for audiences with access requirements. The feature film programme will be complemented by a wide range of digital talks and events which will be free to access, including LFF Screen Talks, which offer in-depth conversations with some of the world’s most influential filmmakers and major on-screen talent. Short films from around the world will also be free to view and the Festival’s previously announced XR and Immersive Art strand will also debut this year, with works that can be experienced in a variety of ways online, with and without headsets.

Through LFF in Cinemas, the 2020 edition of the BFI London Film Festival will also work with UK exhibitors to offer a great range of new programming as they welcome audiences safely back. Anticipating many cinemas will be open during the Festival window, the LFF will partner with exhibitors in the BFI Film Audience Network and other key cinemas and venues around the UK to offer audiences up to 12 exclusive previews from the Festival. These films will also preview at the Festival’s flagship venue BFI Southbank and select other London cinemas over the Festival period. As a one-off for this edition, we’ll ask our audiences to take the place of the Festival’s official jury. Viewers attending Virtual LFF will be invited to vote on Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced in a live online ceremony on the final weekend of the Festival. 

The full programme will be announced at an online launch on 8th September 2020.

Source: BFI


Monday, 27 July 2020

Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates)

Harry Kümel
Harry Kümel. Image: Hawawiki1 [CC BY-SA]
Last summer I posted a little something about the book I'd written on Ken Russell's The Devils, which was published as part of Auteur's Devil's Advocates series.  Bearing in mind that I am probably not the most impartial judge, I can honestly say I've never encountered a bad entry in this series, and each and every title I've read has left me with a newfound appreciation of the given film.  My experience of Devil's Advocates pre-dates my direct involvement with it, and I'm very pleased to have contributed to a series I've been a fan of both before and since my book formed a small part of it.  Naturally, there's an extra frisson when a DA appears on a film I'm especially fond of—Laura Mee's excellent book on The Shining and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' fine volume on Suspiria being two such cases in point—so I was most pleased to learn that the series was going to include a book on Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (Dutch: Dorst Naar Bloed), a film I wrote about way back in 2012 for the print version of Holland Focus.  If you so wish, you can venture into the HF archives to view a washed-out scan of that short piece.

The Devil's Advocate on Daughters of Darkness is the work of Kat Ellinger, who for some time has been one of the most consistently interesting film historians out there.  As well as her numerous contributions to a variety of both print and digital publications, Kat is the editor-in-chief over at Diabolique Magazine, and she has also recorded a number of audio commentaries for DVD/Blu-ray releases; her commentary (with Samm Deighan, author of the DA on Fritz Lang's M) on Eureka Video's disc of Joe Begos' Bliss is, to my mind, the best new commentary track I've heard this year.  As an admirer of both Kat's writing and Daughters of Darkness, it seemed certain that I was always going to find this particular DA to be a great read, and I'm pleased to confirm that the book more than met my (admittedly high) expectations.  The book is split into four main chapters, and it moves along at a nice clip; chances are you, like me, will devour it in one sitting.

The book contains a huge plus in that Ellinger has sought out the views of both director Kümel and the film's co-star, the Québécoise Danielle Ouimet, which really adds a most satisfying layer onto what is always an engaging, insightful read.  As a longtime fan of the incomparable Delphine Seyrig—I'm currently neck-deep in my own project concerning another of the actress' films—I especially appreciated reading their thoughts on working with this great star.  The book is highly recommended, and it might be best to pick it up sooner rather than later, given that in exactly three months' time a limited 4K UHD disc of a new restoration of Daughters of Darkness will be released; among its many bonus features, this edition will include commentary tracks from both Kümel and Ellinger.  Needless to say, I'll be in the queue for that one, but until it appears you can put in some preparatory work thanks to yet another excellent addition to the ongoing Devil's Advocates series.  The book is available from numerous sellers, including Amazon Netherlands.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Allez, Eddy! (Gert Embrechts, 2012)

11-year-old cycling talent Freddy is the son of a local butcher in the back of beyond. When the village’s first supermarket opens its doors in 1975, Freddy’s isolated life is turned upside down. To celebrate its opening, the supermarket organises a bicycle race, the winner of which will get to meet Eddy Merckx. Freddy’s father, a fervent opponent of the supermarket, wants nothing to do with the race. Freddy enters secretly. Participation in the race opens up a new world, not only for Freddy, but also for all those surrounding him.

Allez, Eddy! is een hartverwarmende komedie over het elfjarig wielertalentje Freddy, zoon van een slager in een idyllisch dorpje in niemandsland.  Zijn geïsoleerde leventje wordt volledig overhoop gehaald wanneer in 1975 de eerste supermarkt in het dorp zijn deuren opent.  Ter gelegenheid van de opening organiseert de supermarkt een wielerwedstrijd waarbij de winnaar Eddy Merckx zal ontmoeten.  Freddy’s vader is fervent tegenstander van de supermarkt en wil niets van de wedstrijd weten. Freddy schrijft zich toch stiekem in.  Door deelname aan de race gaat er een nieuwe wereld open, niet alleen voor Freddy maar ook voor alle mensen om hem heen.


Gert Embrechts enrolled at Sint-Lukas film school in 1987. After graduating, he worked as first assistant for directors such as Ben Sombogaart, Frank Van Passel and Peter Greenaway. Gert shot a number of award-winning short films (13, Vincent), documentaries and episodes of TV series (Kinderen van Dewindt). He also wrote the screenplay of Stricken, the box office hit based on the novel by Dutch author Kluun. Allez, Eddy! [which can be bought or rented here] is Gert’s debut as a feature film director.


Jacqueline de Goeij worked as an independent producer in The Netherlands for more than 10 years, producing quality drama for TV and cinema. In 2002, she produced Zus & zo which was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2009 Jacqueline founded her own Belgian independent production office Ciné Cri de Cœur, focusing on feature films and documentaries. Allez, Eddy! by Gert Embrechts is the first Flemish feature film produced by Ciné Cri de Cœur.

Source/images: Flanders Image

Monday, 29 June 2020

King of the Belgians (J. Woodworth / P. Brosens, 2016)

King of the Belgians [which can be bought or rented here] is a road movie in which a dormant King gets lost in the Balkans and awakens to the real world. King Nicolas III is a lonely soul who has the distinct feeling he’s living the wrong life. He embarks on a state visit to Istanbul with a British filmmaker, Duncan Lloyd, who has been commissioned by the Palace to shoot a documentary intended to polish the monarch’s rather dull image.

The news breaks that Wallonia, Belgium’s southern half, has declared its independence. The King, bursting with purpose, must return home at once to save his kingdom. And for once, he declares, he will write his own damn speech. As they rally to depart, a solar storm strikes the earth causing communications to collapse and airspace to shut down. No phones. No planes. To make matters worse, Turkish security coldly dismisses the King’s suggestion they return home by road. But the King has no intention of waiting out this storm. Lloyd, sniffing an opportunity of historical proportions, hatches a dubious escape plan that involves flowery dresses and singing Bulgarians.

Thus begins their undercover odyssey across the Balkans, a journey that’s loaded with wrong turns, startling encounters and moments of fleeting joy.

Director's Statement:

An Icelandic volcano erupted and an idea was born: let’s drop a Belgian King in Istanbul, stir up a natural disaster, spark a political crisis and then launch him on a homeward overland journey, incognito, that features trip-ups, show-downs and moments of grace. Displacement as the essence of comedy, in other words. 

The challenge was how to actually tell this tale... The Royal Palace hires Duncan Lloyd, a Brit, to upgrade the King’s image. Nicolas III is a lonely soul who drifts through the motions of protocol and is largely kept silent. His unexpected odyssey through the Balkans causes him to question his worldview and to ponder his awkward place in the universe. He is but a man. But he is also a King. What could or should that mean in such fragile times? Lloyd’s lens is the sole prism through which we experience these six extraordinary days in the life of a King. 

And what about Belgium, a complicated little country that specializes in surrealism and compromise? The ongoing political turmoil in our peanut kingdom and Europe’s ever-deepening identity crisis were a key source of inspiration. But the political tangent of the film remains secondary to the inner transformation of the King as he savors his anonymity and begins to discover his genuine yearnings. 

To enhance authenticity and spontaneity we often invited the actors to improvise. And we filmed chronologically. The situations become increasingly outrageous but actually remain delightfully believable. The result is King of the Belgians, a road movie about a wayward monarch profoundly lost in the Balkans.

Source/image: Flanders Image